I do not know whether it is that I am getting old (a welcome fact) or soft (some may argue that on the human side I have always been) but I have been sensitive to touch lately. In my role as a member of the Board of Directors for several public companies and one academic center, I observe many chief executives and their senior teams. I marvel at the differences in how these accomplished individuals interact with their various constituents, particularly noticing those who are exercising leadership and those who are merely managing others. The difference can often be seen in how they connect: how they “touch.”
Two very concrete situations come to mind, involving two different organizations. In both of these cases, after reviewing presentations for an upcoming Board meeting, I shared by e-mail some brief observations with the CEO. One CEO immediately sent back a short note: “good comments, thank you.” I never heard back from the other. One touched me back; the other did not. Which case do you think made me feel better? Of course, there are many possible reasons why the second one did not respond. Too busy; never saw my e-mail; my observations not relevant. The latter was unlikely, since I did subsequently send the same comments to the Board Chair, and they were very positively received. But that is not the point. The point is that in one case there was closure of the interaction; none in the other. The first created an enrichment of the relationship; the second left a void. It was no big deal in the grand scheme of things, yet it was one of those subtle instances that to me differentiates good leadership.
Perhaps some CEOs think that we Board members do not need to be “touched.” After all, we are “accomplished individuals with extensive executive experience and a proven track record.” (This came from a Board Director job description.) Well, I have news for those CEOs: We are human too, vulnerable and uncertain at times, and with varying degrees of self-esteem, even if we all convey enormous self-confidence. We can all use – and often cherish – the feeling that we are needed and our contributions acknowledged and recognized. This is so even when (as has happened to me often) my suggestions, while not acknowledged, show up as actions later on. Yes, actions do speak louder than words, yet recognition still reinforces relationships.
The issue is, perhaps, aggravated by the prevalence of Internet communication. In my past career, I depended heavily on direct, in-person communication to fully convey meaning. I believe my colleagues felt my intentions as much as they understood them intellectually – tone of voice, body language, facial expression. And I could immediately gauge the level of understanding and connection in the exchange. Even silence in the conversation revealed enormous content. All those elements of effective dialogue are absent in e-mail communication, requiring us to be particularly mindful in the exchange. A word or two added to an e-mail can convey sentiment. The speed of the response can convey import. Cold as the electronic exchange medium may be, one can convey caring.
I believe it is essential to respond to all e-mails even with the briefest of acknowledgments. One of my favorite Board members, Ernie Mario, always impressed and touched me: he responded immediately to every communication, even if just with a short note. And one of my most treasured advisors, Larry Sonsini, always got back to me in less than 24 hours no matter where in the world he was. He made me feel that I mattered. But then Larry had this extraordinary capability to make me feel that I was the most important person in the world to him at that moment, no matter how busy he was.
We need to remember that so much of leadership is establishing and strengthening alliances. As leaders we are, after all, chartered with the task of sweeping others in our path to carry out the organization’s mission. We get others to join us, to the best of their abilities, in the pursuit of a goal. We seek ardor, not just execution. We seek added genius, not mere implementation. This requires continuous contact, acknowledgement, and appreciation of support. This touch, in the service of sustaining a vital connection, becomes even more important when the communication is largely electronic.
Granted, some of us need more touch than others, but I suggest that we all value it and, as leaders, must deliver it.